The attractions are protected in the 14,083-hectare Parque Nacional Volcán Rincón de la Vieja, which extends from 650 to 1,965 meters in elevation on both the Caribbean and Pacific flanks of the cordillera. The two sides differ markedly in rainfall and vegetation. The Pacific side has a distinct dry season (if you intend climbing to the craters, Feb.-April is best). The Caribbean side is lush and wet year-round, with as much as 500 cm of rainfall falling annually on higher slopes. The park is known for its profusion of orchid species.
The diverse conditions foster a panoply of wildlife species. More than 300 species of birds include quetzals, toucanets, the elegant trogon, eagles, three-wattled bellbirds, and the curassow. Mammals include cougars, howler, spider, and white-faced monkeys, kinkajous, sloths, tapirs, tayras, and even jaguars.
The lower slopes can be explored along relatively easy trails that begin at the park headquarters. The Sendero Encantago leads through cloud forest full ofguaria morada orchids (the national flower) and links with a 12-km trail that continues to Las Pailas (Caldrons), 50 hectares of bubbling mud volcanoes, boiling thermal waters, vapor geysers, and the so-called Hornillas (Ovens) geyser of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. The mud has minerals and medicinal properties used in cosmetology. Be careful when walking around: it is possible to step through the crust and scald yourself, or worse. This trail continues to the summit.
Between the cloud forest and Las Pailas, a side trail (marked Aguas Thermales) leads to soothing, hot sulfur springs called Los Azufrales (Sulfurs). The thermal waters (42° C) form small pools where you may bathe and take advantage of their curative properties. Use the cold-water stream nearby for a cooling off after a good soak in the thermal springs. Las Hornillas are sulfurous fumaroles on the devastated southern slope of the volcano. Another trail leads to the Hidden Waterfalls, four continuous falls (three of which exceed 70 meters) in the Agria Ravine. You'll find a perfect bathing hole at the base of one of the falls.
Hiking to the Summit
The hike is relatively straightforward. You can do the round-trip from the Las Pailas Ranger Station (also called Las Espuelas) to the summit and back in a day, two days from park headquarters. The lower trail begins at the Santa María Ranger Station, leads past Las Hornillas and the Las Pailas Ranger Station and snakes up the steep, scrubby mountainside through elephant grass and dense groves of twisted, stunted copel clusia, a perfumed tree species common near mountain summits. En route, you cross a bleak expanse of purple lava fossilized by the blitz of the sun. Trails are marked by cairns, though it is easy to get lost if the clouds set in; consider hiring a local guide. The upper slopes are of loose scree. Be particularly careful on your descent.
It can be cool up here, but--if it's clear--the powerful view and the hard, windy silence make for a profound experience. From on high, you have a splendid view of the wide Guanacaste plain shimmering in the heat like a dreamworld between hallucination and reality, and, beyond, the mountains of Nicoya glistening like hammered gold from the sunlight slanting in from the south. On a clear day, you can see Lake Nicaragua. Magical! You have only the sighing of the wind for company.
It will probably be cloudy, however, in which case you may need to camp near the top to ascend the summit the next morning before the clouds set in (there's a campsite about five km from Las Pailas; it's about two hours to the summit of Von Seebach from there). The beach of Linnet Bird Lagoon--a whale-shaped lagoon filled with very cold water, southeast of the active volcano--is recommended for camping. Bring a waterproof tent and clothing, plus mosquito and tick repellent. The grasses harbor ticks and other biting critters: consider long pants.
Fill up with water at the ranger station before your uphill hike.
The park headquarters is an old adobe hacienda--Hacienda Santa María--about 27 km northeast of Liberia (a sign on Hwy. 1 on the south side of Liberia points the way to the "Sector Santa María"). The 19th-century farmstead was once owned by former U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson, who sold it to the park service. It contains an exhibition room and is linked by a six-km trail to the Las Pailas Ranger Station, on the southwestern flank of the volcano. Las Pailas is reached via a road from Curubandé.